Saturday, 16 August 2014

Venus of the woods

With its airy canopy, the ash must be one of our most graceful and familiar trees. Norfolk has a number of fine examples, some of which are present in hedgerows around Wymondham as pollards, and the species is the second most commonly encountered of the traditionally managed trees (behind oak) on Norfolk farmland. This was a popular tree, favoured for firewood and for working into tools but old texts do introduce a note of caution, suggesting that this is a thirsty tree which can draw water away from crops if planted alongside them.

There are few really old or large specimens in the county and it is thought that the shallow-rooted nature of ash, coupled with being prone to rot, has meant that few survive to any great size. Where it does feature strongly, however, is as a hedgerow shrub, where ash would have been the main source of hedgerow firewood, favoured for burning strongly with a good flame and little smoke. The diversity of uses for ash can be seen in the writings of John Evelyn, the English writer, gardener and diarist, who wrote that ‘the husbandman cannot be without the ash for his carts, ladders, and other tackling, from the pike to the plow, spear, and bow.’ The timber is even used in the frame of the classic Morgan sports car.

As with other trees with a long history of use, there is a great deal of folklore around the ash. One of the more interesting superstitions concerns the ‘shrew-ash’, an ash tree inside which a shrew would be sealed to give the tree certain magical powers. A branch cut from such a tree could, so superstition has it, be used to stroke livestock that were sick or lame, such treatment effecting a cure. The roots of this superstition were linked to the belief that shrews could harm livestock and that lameness in cattle was caused by a shrew running over them in the field. While this may be the stuff of nonsense, some of the supposed medicinal properties of ash do have a basis in fact. It is, for example, known to have diuretic properties and can benefit the digestive system. Clearly, this is a tree with a long history of use.

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